Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Unfinished Business: BioShock 2 (Part Two)

['Unfinished Business' is a feature where I take up an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

Last week, I wrote about my initial impressions playing through BioShock 2 for the first time. Having finished the game on Sunday, this article will contain my concluding thoughts.

In all honesty, the game didn't change a huge amount between those initial five hours and the last seven, which incidentally made this game's single-player considerably shorter than its predecessor. Even with that stunted length, there was a fair amount of padding and many aspects of the plot I was looking forward to watching develop didn't go anywhere. The Big Sisters turned out to just be enemies after all. Sofia Lamb wasn't any more substantial as a villain than initially appeared and her plot to take the 'common good' elements of communism to a lunatic extreme never rang true nor seemed motivated by any clear purpose. The butterfly symbolism she was linked with, suggesting change and rebirth, was appropriate, but felt more integral to her plan than character. 

There was, however, one twist in the tale which was movingly played and a rare instance of this sequel building on the first game, rather than aping it. Was it enough to elevate an otherwise uninspired game to greater heights? Not quite, as for one thing it's a shame that the revelation in question only has meaning for the game's final two hours. But it has made me give the game more thought than I was expecting, meaning that if nothing else, it wasn't as forgettable an experience as it initially threatened.
The more I think about it, the more apparent it becomes that parenting has been a key theme of the BioShock mythology since the beginning. The first game made a big deal of its Objectivist trappings, but the themes about the conflict between self-determination and obedience were tied into the relationship between  the protagonist Jack and his father, Andrew Ryan. The internal programming which Jack has been following since birth was perhaps a metaphor for how our parents set our moral values, affecting the choices we make not only as children but throughout our entire lives, making Jack's conflict not so much one between the ideologies respectively presented by Ryan and Brigid Tenenbaum, but a question of whether it is possible to separate yourself from the circumstances into which you were born and the ideals that your parents, directly or indirectly, programmed you with.

If BioShock 2 deserves credit for innovating, it's in how it makes you rethink not only your actions throughout the game, but also the one before. Sofia Lamb's grand scheme isn't really any more important to the game than to bring the necessary conflict, which explains why the innumerable tape recordings that laid out the game's background details were so unengaging. There's not so much a plot as an event which needs to be stopped, plus a lot of backstory leading up to that point. Who betrays who and why doesn't really matter, apart from to set up a handful of situations in which the player has to make one of the series' signature black-and-white moral choices. (I tried to get around this by freezing Stanley Poole instead of killing him - surely he deserved not to get away scott-free for his actions, even if execution wasn't an option - but the game couldn't handle that grey area and made him explode as soon as the plasmid hit). However simplistic, it's in those instances, and the usual save-or-harvest scenarios with the Little Sisters, that the game finds what it wants to say.

The twist this time around isn't as immediately shocking as that revolving around the death of Andrew Ryan, but proves to be a more nuanced piece of writing that leaves a longer-lasting impression. The forced execution of Ryan was a well-staged moment of shock that brought a sense of immediacy to the concepts we had been hearing about but not realising that we had also been playing through. In BioShock 2, the revelation that Eleanor has been watching your every action doesn't initially seem like a big deal at all, until it hits that in the absence of a biological parent figure ready to protect her, she has been using her bond with you to experience and understand the outside world.

Having her be the consequence of your actions was a more powerful use of the game's illusion of choice than its predecessor's rather farcical means of deciding whether you would end the game as a saint or the evil-to-end-all-evils. Project Delta's relationship with Eleanor is the exact opposite of that between Jack and Andrew Ryan. Jack was biologically related to Ryan, but sought to break the chains in which the parental influence had trapped him. Delta and Eleanor's link is artificial, yet their story is one of a parental influence being created rather than shattered. Being responsible for an independent character gives your decisions more emotional weight than attaching them to a character who you may control, but never see or can really relate to.

(As an aside, it's funny how much this game shares in common with Metroid: Other M, which was released only six months later on the Wii. Both are flawed games, but do a lot of interesting work around a similar theme. You can read an analysis I wrote of that game's use of surrogacy and parenthood at my Destructoid blog here).

For the majority of the game, the plot feels detached and uninvolving, either a means of delaying your progress or a vehicle for more seemingly hollow 'choices'. Yet once Eleanor explains that you weren't alone on your journey, seeing her in person for the first time, lying in her glass prison, gives the game a much-needed sense of purpose. When she says, during your escape from Rapture, that she knows "you never wanted a daughter", the words bring a twinge of guilt for your earlier indifference and belief that she wasn't anything more than a plot device and occasional plasmid delivery system.

Redemption comes as you fight alongside her in the final act, a gratifying conclusion to the game's themes and rare instance of a game having built a relationship on more than words and predetermined scenarios. It pays off in a big way - as inherently silly as the plot and setting are, watching her proficiency in combat (while a bit odd, given how unlikely it is that Lamb gave her any combat training) is a point of pride and brings the anxiety of wanting to keep her safe. How often can you say that about an AI partner in a game? Did I ever feel guilty when she ran in front of one of my ice attacks that was aimed at a splicer attacking her.

Whilst I understand that the revelation of your parental bond draws its power through being delivered too late for you to use it as a filter for your choices, it's a shame that the game couldn't find a way of making you a more active component of the story until that point. Partly because I'm disappointed that the Big Sisters amounted to nothing more than meaningless foes, I keep wondering whether there was some way the developers could have made Eleanor into a single Big Sister you fight throughout the game - perhaps Lamb could have programmed her to stop you, which would explain her later talent for combat - so the guilt of having 'defeated' her all those times would add another layer to the theme of parents inadvertently damaging or teaching their children, while making you a more active participant from an earlier point.

For my thoughts on the ten-odd hours leading up to that twist, you only need refer back to my previous article, linked to at the top of this one. The drill dash move, when combined with the freeze plasmid (which I used a lot, in case you hadn't picked on that by now), was a lot of fun, but the only time the game made me feel like I was controlling a Big Daddy powerhouse. Until the end, the storytelling was as uninteractive as could be (I don't buy into the idea either for this or the previous game that pressing a button to hear people talk represents 'interactivity' in any form), the philosophy facile and Lamb a villain so throwaway you only see her once in-game, probably for less than two minutes. The gameplay was as it was in BioShock,  with the sole change for the better being improved access to plasmids. It was ten hours of mundane retread, followed by two of unexpectedly fulfilling time in the company of a new daughter. I didn't feel like I needed to take the second trip to Rapture, but at least by the end I was happy enough that I had.


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